Sunday, November 30, 2014

All around the Rock

We left Sydney in 60oF (15.5oC) weather, with a bit of mist and came to Ayres Rock Resort in 104oF (40oC) and bright sunshine. All of our bags arrived and the porters had them in the room before we actually got checked into Sails in the Desert, one of the several hotels that make up the resort area. The purpose of the self-contained township of Yulara is to cater to tourists. Along with the hotels, the resort has a town center with a variety of shops and eateries, a small museum, art galleries, a grocery store and the only grass for a hundred miles. Looming large on the horizon is the reason anyone visits this area: Uluru. This red giant and its companion, Kata Tjuta, are part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and a religious center for Aṉangu (Aboriginal) culture. Although the area has been used by the native peoples for as long as 10,000 years, it didn’t make it into the atlas of the Europeans until the 1800s and tourism didn’t begin until the mid-1930s. Development started literally at the foot of Uluru, ignoring the status it held as a sacred reserve to the Pitjantjatjara people. It wasn’t until 1970 that its religious significance was recognized and tourist services were moved out of the national park. In 1985 the ownership of Uluru was returned to the local Pitjantjatjara Aborigines with the understanding that they would lease it back to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Agency for 99 years and that it would be jointly managed; an agreement that the climb to the top of Uluru by tourists would be stopped was later broken. Climbing Uluru is a sacred Aṉangu rite, performed by men during certain ceremonies and in association with their stories explaining the creation of the world, which is why tourists are asked not to make the climb. Another reason tourists are cautioned about this climb is that it is very difficult; a steep, slick grade, strong winds, rain, and high heat have contributed to at least 35 deaths.

'City Center' seating area
Ayres Rock Resort is well away from the National Park, but from several high dunes within the grounds you can see Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Although you can walk from the any of the five accommodation areas to any other along trails through the dunes, there is a free bus that will take you all the way around the resort. Visitors to the area can stay in the luxury of Desert Gardens Hotel or ‘rough it’ in the Ayers Rock Campground, or choose lodging that is between these two extremes at the Outback Hotel and Lodge, the Emu Walks Apartments or the Sails in the Desert. The hotels have interesting architecture that blends into the landscape and are worth a look, as is the Visitor’s Center with its small museum display of indigenous wildlife.  There are also self-guided garden walks associated with the Desert Gardens Hotel and the Sails in the Desert Hotel that are fun to do. Whatever you do outside, plan on doing it very early in the morning or after 4:00 in the afternoon. Unless you are used to temperatures of 100oF+ (38oC+), hiking, or even sauntering, is not only exhausting but dehydrating. Since Yulara and the resort are so isolated, you’ll see that great care is taken to preserve and conserve resources. You’ll notice solar heaters for water, recycling areas, and drip irrigation; twice a week truck caravans deliver food along with other supplies from Adelaide, 1,663 km (1,033 mi) away, while other caravans make the daily trip of 433 km (269 mi) to Alice Springs.

Visits to the art galleries are also interesting, particularly if you take time to talk to the ‘artist
Dingo, wallaby, rabbit, lizard
and human tracks
in residence’. One of the things we learned from an artist is that the symbols they use, while similar to symbols other artists have used for centuries, are not strictly interpreted. For instance, dots set in a circle may symbolize a waterhole in one painting while in another they may indicate a reserve of honey ants. There may be actual images of animals, or just their tracks leading to hunting areas. The pictures are reminders of stories told by the elders to instruct the group about how to live with the desert and each other. During our short walks around the resort, we noticed a wealth of animal tracks in the red sand. Some we could identify easily, others not so much. As might be expected in a desert, there were oodles of lizard tracks; but there were also a myriad of bird tracks. Birds, like the other animals in this area, prefer to make their appearance in the early morning or early evening when the heat isn’t quite so oppressive. Besides the ravens that are ubiquitous in Australia (see Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Note), there are magpies, honey eaters, and a number of
Honey Eater
raptors. It took us a while to identify some of the other tracks, but a jaunt to the Visitor Center museum helped us spot what we think were mole tracks and quite possibly tracks of a dingo. We did quickly find rabbit tracks, and while these critters are not welcome most anywhere on the continent, they are still surviving wherever there is a bit of green grass and some water.

There is plenty of transportation out to the National Park through formal tours or the scheduled shuttle service. While the tours give you lots of information and take you to particular places, the shuttle service basically provides pick up and drop off spots, allowing you to spend an extended amount of time doing as you please. On this trip we opted to rent a car. To get into the Uluru and Kata Tjuta areas you have to have a National Parks Pass, so we took a drive out to the National Park, got the three-day pass, then went to the Cultural Center. Riding around in 104oF+ (40oC+) temperatures is a whole lot more fun than walking. It’s an interesting place, the Cultural Center, and a bit different than what I remember from previous trips. They have more about the Aboriginal culture of Uluru/Kata Tjuta and a lot fewer cheesy souvenirs than they did previously. All along the walls of the entry area are paintings that tell the story of the beginnings of the Aṉangu, accompanied by further
Blooming plants and
a praying mantis
explanations of aboriginal history and culture. There is a small area to sit and watch a movie that has many of the local residents telling their family histories and how they now live and raise their children. There are two art galleries with authentic paintings by local artists; we saw a couple of paintings we liked but were, unfortunately, out of our price range. Also sold in the art center are carved wooden sticks used by the Aṉangu to accompany their singing. These carvings, like their paintings, tell stories of living in the desert, celebrations, creation of the world, and so forth.

L to R: Near-Normal Travelers, traditional dancers,
playing the didgeridoo
Knowing that we would have other opportunities to visit the Cultural Center, we headed on back to the resort area to get ready for our dinner tour, Sounds of Silence. They (the tour group) pick you up at the hotel, take you to a tall sand dune, complete with benches and a bar, to see the sun set on Uluru and to snack on appetizers and champagne. Once twilight descends guides walk you down among the dunes to the dinner area where they ply you with yet more alcohol. The cultural entertainment continues with the playing of a didgeridoo while three men perform traditional dances and explain their meaning. Dinner was a buffet with kangaroo, barramundi, lamb chops, pork, and chicken (or it could be emu). I had the fish and the kangaroo. They also have salads, soup, vegetables and more desserts than you can imagine. Afterwards there was a nice glass of port, coffee or tea, a brief star talk and time to take a look through some rather nice telescopes. It takes about four hours start to finish and they do a really good job of making sure that everyone has a good time. We sat at a table with three guys from Germany and a couple from Las Vegas. They were all pleasant company, regaling us with travel stories and their thoughts on coming to Australia.
Kata Tijuta and Uluru

 Uluru and Kata Tjuta are magical at dawn. The play of sunlight across the face of the rocks not only turns them from dull grey to bright red-orange, but sharply contrasts the cracks and paths water has cut into their surfaces. We probably took a hundred pictures of these two monoliths during sunrise. Once most of the other people had left, we set off to do a bit of hiking. This is best completed before 10:00AM when it can get unbearably hot. Before you hike, visit the shops in the ‘City Center’ to see if they are selling fly nets. If they are, ignore the cost and buy one; they will save your temper and your sanity. At certain times of the
Hiking restrictions
years, flies can be a real bother, persisting in crawling into your eyes, nose and mouth. This can make even a short stroll almost intolerable. Hiking most parts of Uluru and Kata Tjuta isn’t particularly difficult, but it is important to take basic safety precautions. Make sure that you have sunscreen and a hat, as well as several bottles of water, before you set off into the desert. A part of the walk around Uluru and many parts of the trails through Kata Tjuta are in the shade, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need water; the dry air does a dandy job of sucking the moisture out of your body. Even though we started at around 5:00AM, the only animals (note the free apps from Australian Government) we saw other than the flies were birds. We did see on our hikes the common ravens and magpies along with kestrels, eagles and very pretty honey-eaters. Set back in cracks, crevices and caves are small pools of
L to R: Petroglyphs representing a waterhole
and a grub, Water hole
water. From the petroglyphs it was obvious that the Aṉangu made use of these areas when they visited. Dark streaks from the top of the rocks hinted at the occasional waterfall and the deep green of plants indicated water located somewhere beneath their roots. Because this was spring, adult birds with their demanding young in tow filled the air with their harsh songs and chased insects through the grey-green grasses. Hot, thirsty and sweaty, we delayed heading back toward the car park until the crush of tourists filling the shady areas chased the wildlife to less populated areas.

We had yet to see any mammals other than a wild rabbit (no kangaroos, wallabies, etc.), probably because of the number of people stomping about and because the animals are smart enough to conceal themselves under trees and shrubs any time after 10:00AM, so I
L to R: Adult camels, Camel calves
was going through furry critter withdrawal. However, there is a sure cure for that right on the resort grounds. The Uluru Camel Tour Company invites people to come visit the camel ‘farm’ whether they are going for a ride or not. Since I had ridden the camels before, I wanted to visit just to renew some old acquaintances and to scratch an ear or two. Although the camel rides take place five times a day, most of the steeds were off duty. Many were grabbing a mouthful of hay, dozing in the sun, or alternating between both. Our approach to their area raised an ear or two, but none of the camels ambled in our direction. Chickens roamed in and out of the barns and corrals picking at bugs and generally trying not to get stepped on by man or beast. A small distance away from the adults, in corrals of their own, were two camel calves. They had been weaned but were not yet old enough to begin training to carry riders. While one drowsed in the shade, the other used her long neck and prehensile lips to slowly pull a bucket of feed toward her enclosure; evidently the feed in her buddy’s bucket was much tastier than what was in hers. We aroused their curiosity when we walked up to the fence; it was apparent that they associated humans with treats since they immediately began sniffing our clothes to determine what was in our pockets. One of the calves let me scratch her ears without blowing me a kiss, or maybe she just hadn’t learned how to spit yet.

Curtin Springs Entrance
Sunset wasn’t until after 7:00PM so that left plenty of time to drive out to Curtin Springs, 52 miles (84 km) away, to look at a Mount Connor. The pictures you’ve seen of the outback with all of the red sand, scraggly trees, and termite mounds are correct. It amazes me that people have chosen to live in this environment and to raise cattle. Curtin Springs is not a town but a working cattle station and is simply a good place to stop for a rest in this harsh, dry land. As the name implies, water is available to the small settlement so there are lush grasses, tall shade trees, and hot pink bougainvillea. We were surprised to see an aviary housing indigenous birds, some wild galas in the trees and a rather tame emu wandering the grounds. There is a convenience store, a restaurant/bar where the people can sit under the trees to eat, four gas pumps (with no cover from the sun), a hotel/motel and camp sites as well as a public toilet facility. We saw two cows and two cattle guards (called grids); the rest of the cattle were browsing somewhere in the million plus acres it takes to raise beef in the desert. Water troughs are supplied by pumping stations and this brings the herd into a reasonable area so that they can be moved into corrals rather than chased through the desert when it is time for a round-up. From the parking lot you can see Mount Connor. This is actually a mesa that is culturally associated with Uluru and Kata Tjuta, but geologically much older. Unfortunately, you must have a reservation to tour this area since it is on private land; however, the friendly folks at Curtin Springs can connect visitors to the people running the tours.

The Red Center of Australia challenges humans, both physically and mentally. Living here is not for everyone, as one of our bus drivers explained: ‘People come here to work, get off the airplane, ride the bus into the resort, have a look around and ask when the next plane is leaving. Me, I’ve been here ten years and there isn’t anywhere else I’d rather be.’
Kata Tjuta and Uluru at sunrise
©2013 NearNormal Design and Production Studio - All rights including copyright of photographs and designs, as well as intellectual rights are reserved.